If there is one thing that gets right up my nasal passages, it's the encroachment of fluffy ideologies into the realms of science in general and medicine in particular. It has been my view for quite some time (and as I get older, this is concretifying rapidly, if that's even a word) that there's a group of no-doubt well-meaning but scientifically illiterate punters who are trying to develop a framework of talking about human behaviour, at all levels from the individual to the societal, based on whims and arcane concepts that have no useful mapping to anything scientific.
This is the world of pseudophilosophy (or maybe "Philosophy as She is Writ), where concepts are "isms" and everything belongs to a rigid ontological hierarchy. It's the world of CP Snow's Two Cultures, except that the scientists are the baddies, and to get anywhere you need to be able to drone at length on "post-structuralism" and "dialectics" and the like.
Anyway, within the constraints of the 140-character limit of Twitter, I became embroiled in a discussion of the value of concepts like "structure" and "agency" in addressing inequalities in health. Now I have nothing against terminlogical shortcuts per se, but the reason for my being brought into this discussion was not because I care how "social scientists" (more on that term later) view health inequalities, but because of a previous discussion with someone over what exactly "agency" was. The skinny on this is that my correspondent was trying to make the claim that "agency" implied "free will" (whatever that is). So what's this "agency" malarkey?
Some "social scientists" (commenters on public affairs, I suppose) suggest that there are two big factors in How Stuff Works in society. One is Structure, which is effectively the environment - the bricks and mortar, effectively. The other is Agency, which is what people do. Now you don't have to be a genius to figure out that these are not rigidly separate categories, because much of what is Structure is set up by the Agency of our punters (members of the ape species homo sapiens), and that Agency is influenced by the Structure, not just at the macro level, but at the very specific micro level that applies to discrete individuals. And since the Structure also has to contain the genetic background of your population, the baseline disease patterns, neural connections, personality traits, biochemical disturbances, outside influences and so on, it becomes difficult to make a good case for distinguishing Structure from Agency anyway.
Well, my ennui at this sort of cobblers spilt over to something of a diatwibe (that's a diatribe on Twitter) against "social science". Because this is where the problem really lies. "Social Science" is a spectacularly ill-defined entity; basically it acts as a rag-bag of several different disciplines, including history, archaeology, geography, that don't fit easily into what's commonly thought of as "Science". This is a shame, because the very name "Social Science" seems to lend an air of respectability to the rags within the bag, some of which deserve that respectability, and some of which manifestly do not.
It also results in the sad situation where people can call themselves "Social Scientists", and attain some sort of protection of the herd, while being able to twaddle on with nonsensical and jargon-laden pablum that has no prospect of informing policy, furthering research or leading to understanding.
I suggested (testily) that the entire literature base of social science could be destroyed, and we would be no worse off. I guess I hoped that some of the social scientists soi disant would leap to the defence of particular disciplines within the rag-bag, and indeed my original correspondent (our tussles aside) was the only one in the little Twitter group to even make a stab at disentangling the mess.
So we're stuck with what is actually the key problem. People whose understanding of science is purely based on a sociological paradigm proposing sociological models and sociological approaches to issues that deserve much more precise and evidence-based approaches. And when we are looking for evidence, rather than the opinions of "thinkers", we are into the realm of science. Proper science - not "qualitative research", not Google-bombs. We need approaches that can be tested so that conclusions - proper conclusions - can be drawn and built upon. That is something that many "social scientists" are spectacularly ill-equipped to do. Our world is complex; there are multiple feedbacks and dependencies. If we insist on adopting the top-down philosophies that percolate out of "social science" thinking, we are going to make expensive mistakes that we have no way of knowing that we're making.
Am I hammering the humanities here? No. I had the real pleasure of getting one meagre "social science" qualification, namely a Certificate in Egyptology from the University of Manchester, a couple of years back. Yes, I am told now that Egyptology is one of the social sciences. Yet within that, I found researchers and lecturers who were well versed in science and hugely sceptical of the fluffy mindset that comes from "sociology". Here were people planning proper experiments, adopting a highly scientific and rigorous approach, appropriately reticent to being too dogmatic about their conclusions, ready to be flexible and to think outside the box. Lumping Egyptology into "social science" seems such a shame.
Am I being too derogatory? Does "Social Science" proper actually exist, and does it have a role to play? Is there a real peer and post-peer review process ongoing? Is anyone leaving out the trash? No doubt your comments will help correct any of my misapprehensions...
We've done it again! This time we biked from Petra in Jordan up to Nazareth in Israel, to raise money for the Nazareth Hospital CT Scanner appeal. Nazareth is the largest Arab town in Israel, but they still don't have a dedicated Stroke Unit to cope with this devastating condition and major cause of death. Click here to find out more, and please help this fantastic cause. Thanks!